Tuesday, October 25, 2011

GPS Buggy

A couple of weeks ago I tried building a small vehicle that would drive to a given location. I wanted to use LVLM but there was a problem with the blocks need to support the dGPS sensor, so I switched to NXT-G instead. Since then, John from Dexter Industries has kindly sent me a fixed version of the blocks, so I'll get back to LVLM. Before this, however, I wanted to document what I did with NXT-G.

I started with a modified version of HiTechnic's IR RC Kart that I happened to have lying around, added the dGPS and a magnetic compass sensor, and ended up with this...

Here's the NXT-G program for my GPS Buggy (GPS Buggy v4.rbtx, 649kb).

The program is in "pack and go" form and includes a myblock that I use for displaying variables.

The following notes are in the program, but I'll include them here for completeness...
  • Set the target lat/long using decimal degrees:
    • ddmmmmmm (lat - 8 digits)
    • dddmmmmmm (long - 9 digits)
  • Positive for North, East
  • Negative for South, West
  • For example:
    • S42 47.778 E147 15.096
    • => -42.7963 ,  147.2516
    • => -42796300, 147251600
I found that that when entering coordinates into the program that NXT-G converted them into scientific notation and didn't display all the digits. I was a bit worried about this at first, but tested it out and was pleased to discover that the entered digits were indeed stored correctly. They're just rounded off in the configuration panel.

Testing out this robot in my driveway, I was a bit disappointed about the consistency of the target coordinates. Although the robot will steer towards a target quite nicely, there seems to be quite a bit of drift in the current coordinates, even if the robot's motors are disabled. I'm not sure why this would be happening, but it seems like it's more of a problem than I'm used to when establishing waypoint coordinates using a standard GPSr.... maybe.

The next thing I want to do is recreate this program in LVLM and then have two robots working together. One robot moves around randomly and sends its location to the the second robot that then steers towards the first robot. I'm am hoping that any drift will affect both robots in the same way, and will result in more consistent behaviour....

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Stanford's Introduction to Artificial Intelligence

I just completed Unit 1 of Stanford's new online (and free!!) course, "Foundations of Artificial Intelligence". It's being delivered by gurus in the field, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, and so far consists of videos separated by short quizzes. Homework assignments and exams are to come...!

The course is based on content from their face-to-face class at Stanford, and provides an overview of a very interesting field of study that is, of course, very relevant to robotics education. Even after the just the first video I already feel like I've had lots of excellent professional development for my grade 5-12 robotics classes!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

LEGO Mindstorms NXT 2.0 Software - Now free!!

I'm very pleased to see that LEGO have now made the retail version of their NXT-G v2.0 software available as a free download. Because this is the retail version, it won't have the Robot Educator tutorials or the graphical data-logging capabilities of the education version, but it's still great for situations where students who do have their own kits want to be able to do some programming at home.

I know that it costs a lot of money (and time!) to create a piece of software, but I've been very keen to see LEGO make the software freely available for quite some time - especially for schools. When it comes to robotics in the classroom, I find that each of the dominant programming languages for the NXT have their own strength and weaknesses. Considering the breadth of students I teach, I like to have a range of programming options available, but the cost of licenses needed to have a full range of software adds up quickly. For some students, NXT-G is perfect, but for others (e.g. those who have already completed pre-tertiary Computer Science) either RobotC or LVLM will be more appropriate. (I'll even be breaking out Robolab this week for a student who has decided that he wants to program a swarm of RCXs for his final project!!)

(Thanks to Damien Kee for passing on this news via the 'Robotics in Education' mailing list.)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Save as... in LVLM

There's a feature in the NI's LabVIEW for LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT (LVLM) that I'm pretty keen on... it's that when you open LVLM it starts in a cut-down "LVLM" environment that removes many of the more advanced features from the toolbars, etc. and generally simplifies the interface. When you're ready, you just choose the "LabVIEW" environment and you've got access to the full range of LabVIEW features and menu items.

Unfortunately, one of the features that is hidden in the LVLM environment is "Save As..."!! Now, I expect that this was hidden because the LabVIEW "Save As... is indeed pretty darn advanced. For example, one of the options is to rename a file without creating a new copy. Another option allows you to create a new copy of your file, but lets you continue to work on the original copy.

It is, however, quite confusing as a newcomer to have the "Save As..." missing entirely. I'm pleased that a patch is now available that adds a much more familiar version of the "Save As..." to both environments in LVLM...



Tuesday, September 27, 2011

GPSr comparison - Garmin v LEGO

I took my new GPS unit for a quick test run last week to compare it to my good old faithful Garmin Etrex Vista Cx. I set the NXT+dGPS to log its coordinate every 5 seconds, and the Garmin was left on its defult settings. Both units were positioned in between the driver and front passenger seat of my car. I waited until both units had a satellite fix before I started driving.
  • Yellow - LEGO NXT+dGPS
  • Blue - Garmin Etrex Vista Cx
At the start of the journey, the NXT takes an early lead... (click on the image to see it full size)

But at the end, it's the Garmin that finishes strongest.

Nothing particularly conclusive here, but nice to see that the results are comparable!

Monday, September 26, 2011

RoboCup Junior Australian Open 2011 - Photos and time lapse

RoboCup Junior Australian Open 2011 was held last weekend, the 24-25 September, at the University of Tasmania in Hobart. This was the 12th national RoboCup Junior in Australia, but the first time that it has been held in Tasmania - and it was awesome!!

I have uploaded a bunch of photos to Picasa Web Albums here.

I also produced a couple of time lapse videos using SAM Animation...

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

My new GPS unit...

In addition to playing with LEGO robots, I've been a keen geocacher for over four years. (In case you don't know, geocaching is a GPS-based treasure hunting game/sport/hobby/obsession.) As you might expect, there's always some discussion about the various pros & cons of the various GPS units that are available. With the advent of GPS-enabled smartphones, much of the discussion has been about how these compare with "real" GPS receivers (GPSr).

My first GPS unit, and one that I still use when I want a "real" GPSr, is a Garmin etrex Vista Cx, but these days I rarely cache without my iPhone 3GS (I mainly use the Geosphere app). Typically I go caching with both of these, but now I will have a third option...

This is a LEGO Mindstorms NXT with a Dexter Industries dGPS sensor. There are some guides for using this sensor with NXT-G, but I'm keen to see what I can do with LabVIEW for LEGO Mindstorms (LVLM). As a start, I downloaded the blocks for LVLM, wrote a quick datalogging program, and then went for my usual jog. When I came back home, I imported the data (with a little tweaking) in Google Earth. Unfortunately, I forgot to disable the sleep setting on my NXT brick, so I only got the first 10 minutes. Even so, the yellow line below gives a good indication of what the sensor is capable of doing...

I started on the eastern side of the map, and jogged anticlockwise around the hill. I set the NXT to collect the data every 10 seconds, and I'm impressed with how smooth the results were, over all. The start of the trip is a bit off, but this would be due to me hopping out of the car, and starting the journey without giving the dGPS a chance to settle down. The "wiggle" towards the ends of the log is no worse than what I get on my "real" GPSr from time to time on the same track.

Next, I'm going to do a side-by-side comparison of logging a journey on both my NXT and my Garmin, and then I've got to find a cache using only my new GPS unit!!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

RoboCup Junior - How to impress the soccer/rescue interview panel... or me at least!

I helped with the interviews at the recent RoboCup Junior (RCJ) Hobart Regional and thought it might be useful to point out a few tips for competitors at future events.

(Please note, however, that my involvement has only been with Soccer and Rescue interviews - I have no experience with the Dance challenge. I guess some of what I'm going to say applies to Dance, but I think the Dance Interview score sheet is your best bet for guidance...)

My background with the interview component of RCJ dates back to 2001 when I took my first team to the Australian Open. Although I wasn't directly involved in those interviews, it seemed to be an important and beneficial process for my students. The following year, I lead the interview panels for Soccer and Rescue at RCJ Tasmanian State Finals, and in subsequent years handed over that responsibility to Neil Winter, the guru robotics/ICT teacher from Clarence High, who I was pleased to discover had a very similar idea about the value of the interviews.

The following description of the interview process from the Australian Open 2011 Information Kit is based on what we've used for the Tasmanian State Finals over the past decade.
During the event, each team is required to attend a 10-minute interview to discuss their entry. Although one purpose of the interview is to verify that the team’s work is substantially their own, it is also an opportunity for teams to share their work and to be recognised for their efforts. In assessing the quality of team entries, the interviewers are looking for evidence of engineering and programming skills, independence and commitment.

Logbooks or journals provide a good means of demonstrating these aspects, and are highly advised for all challenges.

Okay, so that's the background and the official stuff (which I totally agree with - I really believe the interview is as much, or more, about you telling me what you've learned than it is about making sure the you were the one who built it), but here's what I'm thinking as we do your interview. If you really want to impress me, you better have some good answers to these questions...

1. How much time and energy have you invested into your competition entry? Is this something you've been working on during lunchtimes, after school, weekends, and/or through the holidays? Or did you just do it during school time - either because your teacher made you do it, or because you have nothing better to do...? Did you take the initiative at any point? e.g. to check the rules, do research, manage time, get help from others?

2. Can I have a look at your journal? Your journal should give me an idea of the time you've spent working on your entry and what you did as you went along. It doesn't need to be perfectly neat. I want to see rough sketches, diagrams, and "to do" lists (maybe even as an appendix at the end of the journal). If you kept your journal/blog online, then please bring a hard copy.

(Note: If you're a RCJ entrant currently getting ready for an event, and you haven't been keeping a journal so far - start now! Make a note of what you've done so far, including photos of your robot and screenshots of your program, and then keep it up to date from now on!)

3. What have you learnt from your mistakes? Do you have photos/screenshots of your robots/programs as you worked on your entry? I want to see examples of failures, as well as successes. Odds are that you've learnt more from mistakes than success, and you never know... a failure now might be the solution for a problem you haven't discovered yet.

Finally, and this is a bit tricky because you don't know what I don't know, but anyway...

4. Can you show me something that I've never seen before? Did you find a clever way of solving a problem with hardware and/or software? Or perhaps you recognised a problem that others hadn't even noticed? Or maybe you just did something innovative with a paperclip? If you can give me a new idea, perhaps even something that I can take back to my students, then I'm going to be impressed!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

RoboCup Junior - Mentor's Journal 1

A few weeks ago, I started mentoring my son's RoboCup Junior Rescue team. I've mentored teams in the past (in both Rescue and Soccer), but not for a couple of years so this felt like something of a fresh start. My son's team consists of three boys, two in grade 5 and one in grade 6.

Team Cybermen - Preparations begin...

We began with two days during the June school holidays, and came up with a few ideas that I thought might be worth sharing, particularly in relation to planning and programming.

In this post, I'm going to concentrate on how we approached the planning and what we did on those first two days....

First, we had a look at the RoboCup Junior Australia website, flicked through the rules, and paid close attention to the tiles.

Second, we wrote a list of all the possible sub-tasks that we could imagine - I call these the "meaty bite-sized chunks" of the rescue challenge, eg. "follow the line", "detect the silver", "detect the can", "push the can out of the spill", etc. We organised this list into two columns, headed "programming" and "building". The boys had lots of good ideas, and I included a few programming ideas that I wanted to cover so, for example, "follow the line" became "1 light sensor - bang-bang", "1 light sensor - proportional", "2 light sensor - bang-bang", etc.

Third, we prioritised the tasks, and got underway!

The part that worked best for making good use of our time on those first two days was that we had a fairly standard 3-wheeled EduBot (aka "The Driving Base") ready to go at the beginning of day one. Although the EduBot is too large to use in the actual competition, having it available meant that one or two team members could immediately start working on the programming sub-tasks, while the rest of the team worked on building the "competition" robot.

By the end of day one, the team had explored the difference between "bang-bang" and proportional line-following using one light sensor, written a simple "move around the spill" program, designed a couple of alternate competition robots, and started writing their team journal using Google Docs.

On day two, we explored how MyBlocks could be used to help to manage their program, an approach to two light-sensor line-following, and a method for handling the green shortcuts. The boys also came up with a "scan for the can" approach to the spill and conducted an experiment to determine whether tracks or wheels would be a better option for their competition robot. They finished the day with more journalling!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

LEGO Engineering Symposium 2011 - Part 3

Reflections on LEGO Engineering Symposium 2011 (Tufts University’s CEEO, 24-26 May 2011) - Part 3 of 3.

Presentations (Day Three) – 26 May 2011

Kristen Wendell – Comparing Three Enactments of an Engineering-Design-Based Curriculum on the Science of Sound
Kristen talked about an interesting aspect of her “Science through LEGO Engineering” work... What can be learned from how the same engineering-design-based curriculum on the science of sound is delivered in three different classrooms?

Two sets of results were presented…
  1. Students’ understandings of sound production, transfer, and pitch
  2. Comparing learning environments
From the pre-post-tests, it was shown that for the sub-domain of sound production, all classrooms showed similar gains in reasoning about mechanisms. The gains vary by classroom for the sub-domains of sound transmission and pitch.

What was it that the two teachers whose classes had the highest gains on the pre/post-test did differently to the other teacher?

Of a range of differing patterns of interaction that were identified, Kristen highlighted the following…
  • Problematizing phenomena - Conveying to students that there is still a scientific puzzle to be solved, that a physical situation is more mysterious or “problematic” than it appears.
    - Eg. Drawing students’ attention to a question like, “Why is it that we can hear something across the room?”
  • Responding to peer’s ideas - Students communicate agreement, disagreement, or extension of another student’s idea - with oral comment or silent hand gesture.
    - E.g. hand gestures to indicate agreement / not sure / disagree
  • Embodying ideas with physical artifacts - Acting out scientific ideas with tangible materials; using physical objects as tools for discussion of the unseen.
  • Connecting to the design challenge - Specifying, or asking students to specify, how the current science investigation would inform work on a design project or process.
I think that Kristen’s research is an excellent study to learn from in terms of framing a research question as well as how to collect, analyse & present data. And awesome use of PowerPoint!!

Chris Rogers – On his soapbox (-:
On paper, this talk was to be about "Pushing the Boundaries of STEM Learning with a Camera" and although he certainly included some details about this, it ended up being a much broader presentation. Chris was on his soapbox and well in form. Some of the themes he touched on…
  • The merit of learning through argument and failure.
  • Multiple pathways.
  • SAM Animation.
  • Physics glasses (this was the bit about the camera)
    e.g. Create a robot to roll a die repeatedly and use a camera to determine the result, to answer the question, “Is my die fair or not?”
Chris’ talk complemented the message from Ethan quite nicely that the CEEO is continually working on tool development.

One aspect of the presentation that surprised much of the audience was that it wasn’t produced in PowerPoint or OpenOffice, but LabVIEW!

Damien Kee – It’s not rocket science (or why you don’t need a programming degree to teach robotics)
Damien’s message was essentially, “Keep it simple!” As leading robotics educators, we have a responsibility to bring newcomers into the fold, but remember to keep it gentle!

A simple, but important, point well made. When Damien explained what his talk was going to be about, the sigh in the audience was amazing! He was clearly saying something that the “overwhelmed” set in the audience was keen to hear. I think there were a lot of people in the audience who would identify more with the newcomers than the experts!

Challenges ideas:
  • Going the distance – use one move block to drive a particular distance
  • How far? – How far does the robot travel when the wheels do one complete rotation?
  • How fast? – How far does the robot travel in 2 seconds? 4 seconds?
  • Off roading – Driving on different surfaces
  • Figure eight – Program a sequence of moves to make the robot move in a figure 8
  • Mexican wave (or “wave” for North Americans) – Multiple robots perform a common goal
Ray Hsu (National Instruments) – LabVIEW for LEGO Mindstorms (LVLM)
Ray introduced LabVIEW for LEGO Mindstorms (LVLM) and highlighted some of the new features…
  • Project center – schematic editor
  • Remote control editor
  • Sensor viewer
He also showed K12lab.com. An example from the site that took my fancy was to create a Base 10 to Base 2 convertor.

LVLM is available for pre-order and will retail at US$99 for a single seat licence and $550 unlimited site licence.

Summaries and lessons learned from the Development Labs

1. Seeing the science/engineering in children's thinking
Kristen Wendell and David Hammer

This group watched videos and analysed transcripts of classroom interactions. They identified the ideas proposed by the students and activities in which the student were engaged
  • What do we think they think?
  • How are they approaching the task?
They also generated a “menu of possibilities” of instructional moves.

What might a teacher do next, and why?

For example, one move might be to have the students record failures, for use later. A failure now is informative and might be helpful later. It’s valuable to identify an idea that isn’t useful in a particular situation.

Thinking about these instructional moves is all about “retooling instincts”, perhaps like practising a sporting skill. Sometimes we might wish we’d reacted in a different way.

As an aside, David noted that the symposium participants were much better at listening to students’ ideas and didn’t tend to use phrases like “they almost have it” as much as the pre- or in-service teachers that he typically works with. Is this because providing feedback to engineering design challenges requires teachers to listen?

2. Integrating Engineering & Literacy
Erin Riecker and Elissa Milto

The Integrating Engineering & Literacy (IEL) project is funded by a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). One of the main goals of the project is to help teachers bring engineering to grade 3-5 classrooms through challenges in children's literature. They are using books that teachers already use (not necessarily fiction). They will be starting with 20 teachers from 3 districts, and following them for 4 years.

For the workshop, the challenges were drawn from two books…
  • Mouse and the Motorcycle - Ralph S. Mouse has driven his toy motorcycle off a nightstand and landed in a trashcan. Can you help him escape (with the motorcycle)?
  • Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing - Peter loves his pet turtle, Dribble. Unfortunately, Peter’s pesky little brother Fudge has a tendency to destroy Peter’s favorite things. Can you help Peter protect Dribble?
The development lab participants attempted these challenges and then generated questions, suggestions for professional development, cross-curricular ties, etc. For example, some of the questions raised:
  • When to introduce engineering challenges? – stop during chapter or go back and ask, “what if?”
  • How does the setting in the book influences the design constraints?
  • Class discussion to define the problem - Should the challenge be based on the overall theme of the book or a specific problem?
3. SAM (Stop Action Movie Making) - Tools for children to create representations of their ideas
Elsa Head and Brian Gravel

In the morning session, participants played with SAM Animation to create stop action movies of a “cycle”. In the afternoon, they came up with ideas for incorporating engineering and animation, for example:
  • Documenting steps/process used
  • Film festival of movies from throughout the year
  • Maths – changing variables, dynamic measurements
  • Sharing learning
  • Using time lapse (eg. measuring shadows, growth, weather)
Brian posed the question, “What is it that kids like about video games?” Answer: Doing things that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. SAM allows for this.

SAM is available from: http://www.icreatetoeducate.com/

4. LabVIEW Education Edition / LabVIEW for LEGO MINDSTORMS - The Next Generation of Programming
Barbara Bratzel, Rob Linslata, and Rob Torok (!)

Because the focus of our development lab was on a new piece of software, it tended to be more of a workshop in format than the other labs, but nevertheless the participants had opportunities to explore and create.

In the morning session, Barbara introduced the LabVIEW for LEGO MINDSTORMS software (LVM) and framed a challenge in terms of creating musical instruments using the NXT and LabVIEW. In the afternoon, I led an intelligent highway / autonomous vehicle challenge. The building instructions and programming samples are available from https://sites.google.com/site/robtorok/

I thought our workshop went pretty well, but Barbara made our workshop look really good by showing lots of videos of the participants’ creations. I particularly liked the point that Barbara made about LabVIEW having a very high ceiling - with lots of stairs!

5. Supporting the Development of Engineering Design Skills K-12
Morgan Hynes and Ethan Danahy

With a focus on engineering design skills, it’s no great surprise the participants in this development lab were given a couple of design challenges to play with…

Challenge 1 – Build something that will stay in a wind tunnel (mounted vertically, with a fan at the bottom pushing air up) the longest. Particpants were given materials and 15 minutes to build their solution.

Challenge 2 – Build something that will make the longest descent from top to bottom. This time they were given 15 minutes, and a catch… You must sketch/plan before building THEN after sketching, instructors announce that the designs will be passed to left and you must build another teams design!

Lots of great ideas highlighting various engineering design skills came out of the subsequent discussion / reflection, including:
  • Quit while you are ahead
  • Inconsistencies between trials
  • Borrowing ideas, sharing
  • Learning to fail, ok to fail
  • Modifying designs based on experiments
  • Research includes testing.
  • Compromising: merging, picking ideas
  • Communication
  • Working within constraints When are you done?
Challenge 3 - Create or redesign a classroom activity to emphasize specific engineering design process steps or skills AND create/incorporate assessment into the activity.

The design compass is looking pretty good now and is available as a free download from www.designcompass.org

6. Physics Glasses: Augmented Reality and other fun things with Image Analysis
Bill Church & Kevin???

This development lab was all about using a webcam as a sensor, for example to represent the momentum in a system as a graphical overlay. Even though wasn’t able to attend this development lab, I’ve had a bit of a play with the new image processing toolkit in LabVIEW and it’s pretty cool. I think there’s a lot of potential here!

Listening to the summary of the lab gave me an idea for a swarm robot project that might be useful for my students back home – mount a camera above a field to determine the location/orientation of the robots and an object. The robots aim is to move the object to a particular location. Hmm….

Merredith’s summary – Pushing the envelope of STEM learning
Merredith close the proceeding with the following questions…
  • How would you summarise your major “take aways” from the Symposium?
  • How are you going to push STEM?
Here are some of the themes that came up in the following discussion…

See you at Tufts in 2012!!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

LEGO Engineering Symposium 2011 - Part 2

Reflections on LEGO Engineering Symposium 2011 (Tufts University’s CEEO, 24-26 May 2011) - Part 2 of 3.

Presentations (Day Two) – 25 May 2011

Chris Wright – “It looks the same to me”
Day two started with presentation from Chris Wright about his research on students’ spontaneous representations of sound transmission. This was another good example of the value of listening to students to get at what they understand.

Chris' presentation featured a nice quote from Sigmund Boloz, “We must merge our traditional sense of schooling with the real world. What we do in school must not insult the child’s past but must build upon his past and encourage future learning.”

It was interesting how the boys in his study used different elements to represent their ideas – eg. changes in crescent length, compactness, line weight, line type.

Steve Hassenplug – Pushing the limits of LEGO Mindstorms
We’re not worthy!! We’re not worthy!!

One of the highlights for me this week was having the opportunity to meet Steve Hassenplug in person for the first time and getting some insights into his design process. For those of us interested in Mindstorms, Steve is without peer. His creations are in a class of their own, but I think this was the first time I realised how important it’s been for Steve to be part of a community of LEGO fans. There’s no doubt that competitions are a driving force for Steve’s creations, but he is also a community builder in his own right. And I guess that make sense. After all, the more he helps others develop their building skills, but better the quality of the competition available to him.

In his presentation, Steve inspired us with a selection of his very impressive creations. I was aware of most/all of these, but there were some aspects that I wasn’t aware of, or had forgotten. For example, I didn’t realise that Steve was involved with creating the standard for the Great Ball Contraption. I was interested to learn that Monster Chess consists of 400 pounds of LEGO, but I was particularly inspired by his Green Monster and his RFID-based PSumo (programmable sumo) project.

Some features of PSumo…
  • It’s a sumo-based game where the participants are responsible for programming a standard robot.
  • They have to choose four cards from a range of 20. Each card represents a different instruction and the cards are colour coded according to their type.
  • The user has to make a decision between, for example, harder/shorter v softer/longer.
PSumo, or something like it, would have been a pretty cool solution to a task I was working in at Tufts last Fall - to create a cheap educational robot.

Afterwards, Steve made it very clear that he’s not interested in providing complete solutions, but is more than happy to provide pointers in the right direction. He repeatedly says he’s not a teacher, which is true in a sense, but that doesn’t stop us learning from him!! In any event, it was great to hear some stories from him over a few days and fill in some blanks about what I knew of the early days of the NXT (including the history of the “hassenpin”).

Liz Gundersun & Sandy Jones – Lights, sound, action: Here come the Olympians!
From their presentation, it sounds like Liz and Sandy have done an awesome job of providing girls who are at risk of leaving school early with opportunities to learn through design challenges. It’s an after school program that encourages student to scaffold ideas, teaching students to explore, think and be curious about problems, and to become analytical and creative thinkers.

Their curriculum includes circuits and switches, RCX robotics, PicoCrickets, and Scratch. Liz’ talk highlighted the value of the PicoCrickets style approach, with its theme cards and craft materials, etc. A useful tip was that for a project to appeal to girls, add eyes, lights, and colour. I think this is something that I need to remember!

For a final project, they had the girls base their projects on Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series. The students selected a Greek deity or hero, and present a story and create a scene about their choice.

Jake Foster – Analytical Thinking in New Science and Engineering Standards
I was particularly impressed by Jake Foster’s presentation detailing trends in the Massachusetts’ science standards. Jake is from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, so I wasn’t surprised that he could talk with some authority about policy matters. I was however, most surprised to hear from someone with his background talking about science and engineering education in a way that seems consistent with the goals of the CEEO.

Whereas the current science standards have a strong conceptual (content) focus with inquiry skills being separate and the design process presented as content, the new syllabus, whereas the new version will combine science and engineering practices with content to promote analytical thinking.

Jake argued that science and technology/engineering are being treated as closer now than ever. There is consensus that it’s not just about scientific literacy; technology / STEM is where it’s at.

One slide, adapted from a National Research Council Conceptual Framework featured a comparison of common “thinking analytically” practises in scientific inquiry and engineering design – interesting stuff! It was also pleasing to see extensive use of verbs in the example standards that we were shown, but why doesn’t all this go even further? What about the “M” in “STEM”? Where’s mathematics in this discussion?

Over all, I think that having this work done in Massachusetts and the US is only going to help the case for STEM-based education in Tasmania and Australia. I’ve got to find a way of getting this guy talking to our state and federal education ministers and policy makers back home!!

Janet Coffey – Engaging students in meaningful assessment
Being so very familiar with Hammer’s take on science education and learning, it was interesting to hear many of the same ideas in a fresh voice.

Janet emphasised the sense of “assessment” as meaning “to sit alongside” (As I understand it, the word assessment derives from the Latin “assidere” that means to sit alongside).

In typical approaches to assessment, the students learn something, and then their learning is assessed. In Science, assessing ideas and reasoning *is* doing science. Everyday assessment is important, as is involving students in the process of assessment. Student engagement in assessment involves...
  • Listening to, and taking seriously, others’ ideas.
  • Evaluating quality and reasonableness
Admittedly I’m a convert to what she was saying about assessment, but I think Coffey made the point well.

Ethan Danahy – What should the CEEO develop next?
This was fun! Ethan conducted two quick polls, using wireless thingies, in which his asked the audience for our views on possible future directions for LabVIEW and SAM Animation.
In the LabVIEW poll, the four options rated fairly evenly…
  • RoboBooks
  • Physics glasses
  • Music /MIDI
In SAM Animation, iPad support was the clear winner.
  • Software modules in LV??
  • iPad support
  • Adding a 4th dimension
  • Movie analysis
It’s not really something that the CEEO has any control over, but I wonder what would’ve happened if iPad support for LabVIEW had been an option in the first poll? (-:

Although I don’t think that much can be drawn from the poll results, it was a good way to illustrate that the CEEO has lots of projects on the go, and that they are always looking for, and finding, new and innovative ways to develop their products.

B Samanta – Swarm Intelligence
B Samanta talked about a swarm robot project he had worked on with some students. He had a tough act to follow and to be honest it was a bit dry, but I thought it was an interesting presentation and very timely… I’ve got a student who is working an NXT based swarm robot project, but we’ve been struggling to see in what direction we should take it. During this presentation, however, it suddenly clicked.

For their swarm robots, Particle Swarm Optimisation (PSO) was used as the main algorithm. PSO is a population based approach that allows for sharing cognitive and social information. What if the Particle Swarm Optimisation (PSO) theory described by Samanta were to be combined with some off-road NXT robots like Hassenplug’s Green Monster and Dexter’s dGPS for localisation and the NXT-Bee for communication.

Andy Bell – Green City Challenge
Andy Bell, from LEGO Education North America, gave us some background on where LEGO Education’s focus in terms of creativity, team-work, and problem-solving and then presented their new Green City Challenge product. The Green City Challenge is a structured getting-started set that includes step-by-step instructions, and a FLL-style mat consisting of seven different renewable energy-based missions. I must admit that this sort of thing isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but it was good to get a taste of it nonetheless.

One point that Andy made about the purpose of robotics had me thinking, and that was when he briefly mentioned the difference between a “learn to robot” activity and one that is more “robot to learn”.

Friday, June 3, 2011

LEGO Engineering Symposium 2011 - Part 1

Reflections on LEGO Engineering Symposium 2011 (Tufts University’s CEEO, 24-26 May 2011) - Part 1 of 3.

Okay, so I confess, I’m a CEEO groupie. I’ve been a CEEO groupie for nearly a decade. Ever since I fired off a series of emails to the only address I could find when I wanted help with how to do something or other that was at the edges of what was possible with Robolab. I was most impressed that the person, Chris, who answered my emails was not only prepared to give me so much of his time, but was also pretty knowledgeable about the RCX and Robolab. Eventually, wondering if fielding Robolab queries was even part of this guy’s job, I thanked him for his time and asked what his role was in relation to Robolab… he replied that he wrote it! Only in his spare time, mind you. Chris’ main focus was particle-laden air turbulence, but he had wanted to use the Lego Mindstorms RCX to help teach engineering principles to undergrads. At that time, only Windows-based software was available for programming the RCX, and being such a Macintosh tragic, Chris decided to write some Mac-friendly software himself!

I think this story highlights exactly what it is that I love about the CEEO. Not only do they come up with creative and fun ways of helping people of all ages learn how to think like engineers, but they are always open to feedback and incredibly supportive of other people’s idea. They are genuinely committed to learning, and understand that their products are the means, not the ends.

I attended my first LEGO Engineering Symposium last year, and as much as I loved it (which was a lot), this year’s was even better! Everything I loved about the format of last year’s event worked just as well this year, but the big improvement was what it didn’t have… Last year the tipping point / climate change / renewable energy theme, undoubtedly an important issue, felt unnecessarily forced at times, particularly in the development labs. This weakness was recognised by the organisers, and full credit to Merredith for putting together a program that allowed the CEEO staffers (collectively known as the “red shirts”) to work to their strengths. A balanced program no-less; one that examined not only the “big ideas” of research, but also the pragmatic questions of “what am I going to do with my class tomorrow?”.

Given that most of the material presented throughout the Symposium is available from the LEGO Engineering website, I’m not going to try to summarise it all here. Instead I’m using this an opportunity to reflect on anything that took my fancy, anything I was particularly surprised by, or anything that I particularly want to remember for the future.

Presentations (Day One) – 24 May 2011

Merredith Portsmore - Introduction

Merredith explained that being a Symposium (as opposed to a conference) means that the event is more about sharing and collaboration than training. Hence we’ve got “development labs” rather than “workshops”. It’s also an opportunity to provide feedback to developers, in particular LEGO and National Instruments.

David Hammer – Listening to students
David was in form. He started with a repeat of the “juice box” and “dorm room” clips from last year, but this year took it a step further and in five minutes covered what took me weeks to wrap my head around when I took his class last Fall. Here are the main beats of his presentation…
  • A view of science…
    - Science as a pursuit: Of coherent, mechanistic accounts of natural phenomena.
    - Science as a body knowledge: The accounts that have result of that pursuit!
  • Two well established findings…
    - Children have extensive intellectual resources for learning science.
    - High school and college (university) students typically treat science as information to memorise.
    Why the second, given the first??
  • A likely conjecture
    - We assess ideas, and teach students to assess ideas for alignment with the canon — the results of scientists’ inquiries — rather than by the ideas’ merits within the students’ inquiries.
  • We need to change...
    - We need to assess students’ ideas — and teach them to assess their ideas — in ways that build toward how scientists assess ideas.
    - And that means a kind of caring about students as nascent scientists.
I loved his quick example that if, for example, I told you that, “I walked my dog to the park” and you replied, “Oh, don’t you mean ‘aardvark’?”, it would be a bit odd of me to agree, “Oh, yeah, I walked my aardvark to the park” as if it didn’t affect the meaning or that it even mattered.

David compared learning in science to what engineers do, putting ideas together and taking them apart.

Rob Linsalata – URAPI: Universal Robot API
Rob raised a very cool idea that I was certainly aware last Fall, but at that stage it was very early days. It looks like quite a bit of progress has been made since I left the Center.

At present there are a number of different hardware platforms that are targeted at the education market but have different strengths. For example, the modularity of Mindstorms that means that everyone’s robot can be different. There’s the simplicity of the Finch that means hardware does what’s it meant to do so the student can concentrate on programming. The iRobot Create that makes the base of a robust, commercially available robot chassis available as a building platform. (Some other platforms I’d love to see added to the mix would be NAO , LynxMotion, or even Willow Garage’s PR2 - when the price drops a few orders of magnitude...)

Imagine being able to run the same program on multiple platforms. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they all played nice together? Having learned basic programming techniques on the Finch, the student might use the same code to program an NXT that they had built themselves. Or better still, I could imagine constructing a LEGO attachment, say an arm and gripper, on top of the Create base and then using one program to manage sensor information from both sections to control both LEGO and Create actuators.

As an aside, I recognise that having them play nice together might appear to work against the developers’ commercial interests. I.e. what’s in it for LEGO? Well, for a start, I’m a teacher so I think that learning trumps commercial interest, but second, I think there’s plenty of evidence to show that in communities where the players play nice together, everybody is better off. Think of cars manufacturers… what if learning to drive a Subaru was completely different to learning how to drive a Toyota? There’s no doubt that both companies benefit from operating successfully side-by-side in the same environment and enabling users to switch between them.

In practise, though, differences between platforms mean that different platforms will necessarily mean slightly different programs, but at least being able to use one software environment for multiple hardware platforms would be an excellent step forward. And I’m happy to see it happening within LabVIEW.

John Heffernan – Rewards and challenges of designing a PK-6 engineering curriculum
John presented his approach to a PK-6 engineering curriculum that makes use of BeeBots, WeDo, and NXT.

There was a lot of interest in John presentation and it was amazing how often it would be used as a reference point in conversations about a whole bunch of topics.

One challenge that I thought John described very nicely was the difficulty in finding suitable challenges for the youngest grades that would hit the right balance between being open-ended and achievable.

I liked the idea of having students “write down three ideas” (words and/or pictures) to help the students pause for a moment and think about their options when they’re get started with a design challenge.

Challenge ideas:
  • BeeBots - Find the honey
  • WeDo - amusement park rides, burglar alarms
  • NXT - robot car challenge
Make a robot that goes as fast as possible, but avoids obstacles – this seems like such an obvious challenge, but it never occurred to me as a way of dealing with the request I get every year from students who just want to make dragsters.

A few other nuggets:
  • We should be “engineering the curriculum”.
  • Do adults follow the model?
  • The challenges are the rewards.
John posted some of his "take away" ideas from the symposium here.

Pernille France (LEGO) – Pushing the envelope of engagement with LEGO

I missed this one because I was setting up for our development lab… (-:

Bran Gravel – Diverse Trajectories: Students' Multiple Representations and Varying Ways of Developing Understandings
In a slick presentation, Brian argued that the “language” of STEM is representation and the representations are central to the STEM disciplines. Representations range from the conventional to the idiosyncratic

Multiple representations...
  • Students’ resources - their ideas - are captured in different representations
  • Engage students with different aspects of problems
  • Offer opportunities for re-description
  • Provide opportunities to assess the quality of ideas
Brian provided some neat examples of what we might learn from students representing ideas in different ways, and how these ideas grows as they refine their representations. Students ideas are embodied in representations and representations can amplify efforts to make sense of the world.

John Cole (Dexter Industries) – New developments in sensors for the Mindstorms NXT
Dexter Industries have produced some very interesting new sensors for the NXT over the last couple of years. I was somewhat surprised to learn that they are such a new company. For some reason I had assumed that they were an established company that had only recently turned their attention to the NXT.

In any event, they have already got some pretty cool sensors on the market, and have some interesting new ones on the way, including:
  • Thermal infrared
  • WiFi
  • IMU (gyro and accelerometer combined)
Some possible IMU activities…
  • Centrifuge test
  • Conservation of momentum
  • Building a better bumper – crash test dummies
I’m particularly interested in the possibilities of using their dGPS and NXT-Bee sensors in tandem to support an NXT-based robot swarm.

Later in the day, I introduced myself to John and was pleased to have the opportunity to express my concerns about the name “NXTBee”. When I first saw the name I was troubled about its similarity to the name “N-X-Bee” that my son and I called one of our robots a few years ago. John was pretty understanding about it, and I’m confident that we’ll be able to keep matters out of court. (-:

Seriously though, John is a really nice and approachable guy, and made it very clear that he is interested in listening to suggestions for products and future directions. All in all, I think that what he’s done provides a great role model for anyone interested in carving out a niche in the market.

Karl Wendt – High Tech High Media Arts Engineering
Karl showed us some of the work he’s been doing with his students at High Tech High Media Arts. I’m not sure what was more impressive... how quickly he was able to put together the infrastructure and materials to create a program that enables students to build robots from scratch, or the quality of the students’ documentation of the process. He has made excellent use of Google sites to allow the students to document and display their work. Karl presented well, but ultimately I think the work speaks for itself… http://www.masei.org/1st-semester-senior-projects. Most impressive!

A couple of neat ideas…
  • Embracing failure – in bringing an idea from conception to the final projects, failure is inevitable and may lead to discoveries that are useful at another time.
  • Legacy – Karl’s students are required to address the question of what legacy will their projects leave behind. At the very least, past projects are kept as part of a 3D reference library.
When I tell people that I spent six months in Boston learning about robotics and engineering education, I’m sometimes asked, “where are you going next?” I think I’ve just found it! At the very least, I’ll be very keen to arrange a visit the next time I’m passing by.

Marcelo Molina – Robotic Education as a Tool to Help Change Developing Countries: Brazil’s Perspective
Marcelo’s presentation reminded us that students have much gain from an engineering approach to learning wherever you happen to be in the world. Talking to him to afterwards it was very clear that he faces some distinctly local challenges in doing what many of us (at least in the US and Australia) would take for granted. In spite of the challenges, he’s had some very impressive growth with his program.

Ideas for challenges

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A summary of my Hardie Fellowship

What follows is a brief summary of my experiences at Tufts University as a result of my Hardie Fellowship. This was prepared as part of a report that I was required to submit to the Education Minister.

Location of travel (travel destinations):
Tufts University, Boston, USA (Hardie Fellowship)

General statement of value of travel:
During his six months based at the Tufts University’s Center For Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO), Rob Torok undertook study in the areas of robotics-based engineering, mathematics education and educational psychology.

Companies/organisations contacted:
Rob worked closely with staff and students at Tufts University over a six-month period, and had numerous opportunities to meet and work with representatives from a wide range of organisations that support STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Education. These included robotics pioneers and industry stakeholders from LEGO Education, National Instruments, Pitsco Education, Harvard’s Microrobotics Lab, The MIT Media Lab, Texas Instruments, iRobot, Willow Garage, Deka, Vernier, and Boston’s Museum of Science.

Outcomes of fellowship:
Rob undertook study in three main areas: robotics-based engineering, mathematics education and educational psychology. He learned about these areas through his participation as a member of the Tufts community and the CEEO, but also participated in four classes with recognised experts in these fields. The key themes and emerging trends highlighted within each of these focus areas are outlined below.

Robotics-based engineering
(“ME-84 Introduction to Robotics” with Professor Chris Rogers
and “EN-10 Simple Robotics” with Assoc. Professor Ethan Danahy)
  • Rob has collected a wide range of ideas for robotics projects and challenges that will be useful in his classes, as well as those of his colleagues.
  • The central “big idea” in engineering education is that of the “Engineering Design Process”. It describes an iterative, multi-step, approach used by engineers to identify a problem and formulate a solution.
  • Massachusetts was the first state in the US (and perhaps the first in any jurisdiction?) to explicitly include Engineering in its K-12 curriculum. The benefits of this approach are manifold and are becoming increasingly evident.
  • When students work on an engineering problem, they necessarily work in a different way to the traditional classroom. For example, engineering problems are “messy”, and require the student to clarify and possibly even redefine the problem itself. Engineering problems can not (or should not?) be stripped down to a series of mindless “turn to page 18 and work down the left hand side”-type exercises.
  • There some interesting implications for the role of evaluation and assessment in the context of engineering design challenges. For example, engineering provides a very powerful context for self- and peer-assessment. How does one assess the role of the individual in a team-based task?
  • Researchers at the CEEO have demonstrated the positive effects of applying an engineering design approach to learning in Science. An untapped area for further exploration will be the ways in which a focus on Engineering might support learning in Mathematics.
Mathematics education
(“ED-112: Mathematical Learning Environments” with Professor Judah Schwartz)
  • Students find it easier to conceptualise mathematics when it is framed in terms of “objects” and “actions”. In arithmetic, for example, the objects are numbers and the actions include the familiar operations of multiplication and addition.
  • In algebra, the “object” of study is less clear, and this may be one reason that many students struggle with the topic. There is, however, a strong case for treating functions as the fundamental objects in algebra.
  • In educational generally, but especially in mathematics, habits of mind are far more important than content. One of the goals of mathematics education, should be for students to learn to think like, and have the disposition to act like, mathematicians. It is counter-productive to have too tight a focus on “covering” content.
  • Students at all ages can, and should, be invited and encouraged to create and test all manner of mathematics, including conjectures, investigations, measurement instruments, and even units of measurement.
  • Technology can help us to provide students with tools that are suitable for making and exploring mathematical creations.
  • If classroom mathematics is framed in terms of modelling, then it provides a context for mathematics that is inherently practical, and lends itself to an applied approach far more readily than is traditional.
Educational psychology
(“ED-191 Students Resources for Learning in Science and Other Disciplines” with Professor David Hammer)
  • Whereas students are often portrayed as having misconceptions that are strongly held and hinder learning (and therefore must be confronted and removed, etc.), the position of Hammer and his colleagues is that this view overemphasises the disconnect between novices and experts, conflicts with a constructivist explanation of learning, and is itself a barrier to learning.
  • An alternative view is that instead of misconceptions, or indeed conceptions, existing as well-formed, robust, and static forms in the mind, knowledge exists in smaller pieces of cognitive structure. These pieces of knowledge, that Hammer calls “resources”, are “activated” as required, sometimes productively, sometimes not.
  • How do we learn what it is that our students understand about a particular topic? One approach is simply to talk with them! Two questions in particular were central to the course...
  • What do students know that is useful? e.g. what are the starting points for expert understanding?
  • What can students already do? e.g. what sorts of reasoning can they do that is basis of scientific thinking?

As a part of the team at the CEEO, Rob contributed to the development of software and hardware tools used to facilitate K-12 STEM education. Following on from this involvement, the Director of the CEEO, Professor Chris Rogers, has invited Rob to continue working with the CEEO formally on short- and long-term project development.

Skills and understandings obtained:
As part of his studies, Rob become proficient in LabVIEW, a graphical programming environment developed by National Instruments (NI). LabVIEW is an industry standard platform used primarily by mechanical engineers for data acquisition and instrument control. Due to the work of the CEEO, it has also been the basis of the two leading programming languages used for LEGO robotics over the past decade. In recent years, the CEEO has working closely with NI in the development of a new LEGO robotics toolkit that will allow student to gain a better understanding of LabVIEW. Rob used LabVIEW in his studies to program robots for a range of weekly assignments, and then passed an accreditation test to be recognised as a “Certified LabVIEW Associate Developer”.

Rob also had the opportunity to become proficient with the use of SAM Animation, another innovative software product developed by the CEEO. SAM Animation was designed for the classroom and allows students to create stop motion and time-lapse movies using a computer and a webcam. It provide opportunities for students to learn about a topic by thinking about it a different way and recording what they know.

Benefits to Tasmania:
Rob has already started using what he learned during his fellowship in both his face-to-face and online classes, and has been sharing with colleagues in his own school as well as the teachers in the schools involved in his online robotics class, SmartBots. He is also keen to continue sharing what he has learned as opportunities arise, for example in presentations at conferences, through the production of online tutorials, and through his web site (http://robtorok.blogspot.com/).

Thursday, April 21, 2011

LEGO South Pointing Chariot

A student asked me about the LEGO differential housing last week. We talked about what it was for, and had a look at this excellent video.

I remembered a design challenge from Eric Wang's classic "Engineering with LEGO Bricks and Robolab", to create a south pointing chariot.

The south pointing chariot is a mechanical compass that was developed thousands of years ago in China and may have been one of the earliest uses of differential gears anywhere in the world. Typically, a figure stands on top of the chariot and always points in the same direction regardless of which way the chariot is pulled.

After some more research, I found a few different examples to draw on, and eventually came up with a working model.

I thought it might be useful to others to have some building instructions, so took this as an opportunity to reacquaint myself with MLCad and LPub 4. I've been wanting to get back into producing building instructions for ages - so that I can finally finish off a bigger project I started working on over two years ago... more about that later! In the meantime, here is the result of the current project...

Download Building Instructions for a LEGO South Pointing Chariot (pdf, 2.5mb).

I used parts from the LEGO MINDSTORMS Education NXT Base Set (9797) and the Education Resource Set (9648), but in fact all the important parts are widely available LEGO Technic parts.

Have fun!

Friday, January 7, 2011


With my time in Boston coming to an end, I thought it was time to reflect on what I've learned over the past six months. For example, I've probably picked up a few things about using LabVIEW that might be useful for other K-12 teachers - especially those like me who don't have a background in engineering! These two tutorials are the first of a series that I'm intending to put together this year.

I think that LabVIEW Education Edition (or whatever the next version will be called....) works well as the next step on from NXT-G, but there's a lot about it that can seem pretty daunting at first. I'm hoping that these tutorials might help ease the transition for teachers and students who want to go beyond NXT-G, but would prefer to stick with a graphical based programming environment.

I'm intending to update these tutorials when the next version of LVEE is released early this year, but figured that I had to start somewhere... Any/all feedback would be greatly appreciated.


LabVIEW for MINDSTORMS NXT Tutorial 1 - Your first program
In this tutorial, I demonstrate how to create a simple program using LabVIEW for LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT. Topics include the functions palette, context help and auto-wiring.

LabVIEW for MINDSTORMS NXT Tutorial 2 - Targetting
In this tutorial, I highlight the idea of "targetting" in LabVIEW for LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT, and point out some of the differences between "Target to NXT" and "Target to Computer".